First Year As a Freelancer: Failing at Freelancing & Figuring Out What to Do Next

July 16, 2018 24 Comments

I can’t believe it’s already been one year since I quit my job to become a freelancer! This year has had its ups and downs with the downs far outnumbering the ups. But I’m getting back on my feet and I’m continuing on, even though I’ve failed repeatedly as a freelancer and lost my biggest client.

First Year As a Freelancer: What I Did After Failing at Freelancing

First year as a freelancer

Let’s dive in, shall we?

If you’ve followed my freelancing story from the beginning, you’ll know that I didn’t exactly intend on becoming a freelancer; I was just trying to leave a toxic job and there weren’t any good 9-5 jobs, and I happened upon a good freelancing job (you can read that entire story on I Quit My Job and 7 Honest Things I’ve Learned About Being a Freelancer). Even though it made my schedule a little crazy, I really enjoyed the work I was doing. The job was with an online magazine that I had been writing for since I graduated college, and I was diving into their anayltics to come up with strategies to help them reach the right audience and grow. It then turned into taking over their social media accounts to implement the strategies. I was basically working full time for them (plus writing a few articles a month), and I had a couple other clients that I did some work for on the side. I was making more money than I had ever before, and things were going pretty well.

So everything was going great until December. The company I was working with decided to change directions and shut down the website I was working with. So not only was I losing my main source of income with my freelance job, I was losing my backup writing income. Overnight, I lost 80% of my income as a freelancer.

I was devastated. I was only 6 months into freelancing and I was already losing my biggest client and main source of income. Even though it wasn’t my fault at all (I had helped them almost double their traffic in a few months), I still blamed myself. To make matters worse, I was in the process of applying for graduate school, and I was paying over $1,000 in applications alone, plus I had signed up to take an Old Norse graduate class in New York City for the spring.

Traveling in Bassano del Grappa

Thankfully around that time, I picked up another client with an opera company. It wasn’t as many hours as the online magazine, but it was enough to tide me over. The hours changed every week depending on what they needed so it was more of your typical freelancing job, but I was enjoying it. I just needed more clients to really start making a profit again. And because of the opera company’s schedule of events, things started really dying down in February and March, and I was working fewer and fewer hours again.

The worst month ever

Things really hit rock bottom for me in March. Someone in my life had health problems, and I was mentally checked out of my business for about a month. It’s a long story and I won’t go into any details, but it wasn’t an easy month, to say the least.

I was struggling financially and emotionally, I spent a lot of time in the hospital and a couple of weeks away from home to be with this person, and I really just couldn’t focus on growing my business and finding new clients.

I was a mess.

And it didn’t help that to make ends meet, I took on a new client that wasn’t a good fit and the work wasn’t what I was interested in at all, so it added more stress and frustration to my already crazy month. I was so desperate for work and money that I started applying for freelance work on job websites, and it was a complete waste of time and I never heard back from anyone (I’ve been learning more and more that finding jobs is about who you know, not what you know). I was so desperate to make money that I completely lost direction with my business. 

Around this time, I really hit a wall with my blog. I changed the name in January to better fit what I was writing about now, but even that didn’t help. Traffic wasn’t going up (it was actually going down some months) and no matter what new strategy I tried, nothing helped. My Instagram followers weren’t going up either, even though I’ve been posting the best photos I’ve ever taken.

I even launched a store to sell my travel photos on my blog, and it was a complete flop. I only sold two photos, and they were to my best friend. These things weren’t nearly as stressful or emotionally draining as everything else going on in my life, but they were still frustrating. Basically, nothing was going right for me.

April started off pretty much the same as March (though not quite as emotional), but there were some highlights, especially with my photography work. The PHLbloggers annual conference happened, and I got to take the headshots of all the attendees (plus the conference is always amazing). I did some food photography for a local catering company, which turned out to be a lot of fun. I also joined the Soloist Collective, a group for entrepreneurs and soloists that started in NYC and recently came down to Philly. It was great connecting with other soloists, and I started working for a girl from that group who started a pet care company, which would actually influence the direction my business is now going.

In May, I picked up a new travel blogger client who actually found my business information through my blog (which was really exciting for me), and I started doing more of the work I love. After working with her and the pet care company, I finally had a mental breakthrough about what I should be doing with my business and I started making plans to implement my new ventures.

The end of the month was hectic, but for good things! My boyfriend graduated from medical school, and we took a trip to Copenhagen, where we first met over 5 years ago.

Nyhavn in Copenhagen

I finally figured things out

Once we got back from Denmark, I hit the ground running, and I launched a website for my business! The brand new Julia Renee Consulting is the one stop shop for all your website needs. Remember how I said I had a mental breakthrough? After working with the pet care company and travel blogger, I finally figured out what my job title is- website consultant. It even goes back to when I first started working with the online magazine. I was going through their analytics to find things they could improve on and coming up with new strategies to reach their target audience.

Julia Renee Consulting

I continued doing that work for a few other clients without really realizing what I was doing, and once I started doing more things like SEO optimization, website management, and marketing strategy for the pet care company and travel blogger, I realized that anayltics was my strong suit. I am VERY left brained and logical (even with my photography!), but I was never interested in math or science so I didn’t know what jobs I could do with my left brain. Being a website consultant allows me to analyze problems, come up with solutions, and implement new strategies, which I LOVE.

I’m still doing content writing and social media, but being a website consultant and manager gives me something different to offer my clients. I’m also working exclusively with small businesses. It may not pay super well, but I’m really enjoying working with people who are passionate about their work and are eager to hear my advice. Since I have a small business myself, I know what it’s like to have to work within my budget and not be able to pay for things that could really help, so I keep my prices low to give small businesses the opportunity to fix their website problems and grow without breaking the bank (and I’m completely transparent about my prices on my website).

And now that some of the craziness of creating my website has died down, I’m also going to focus on doing more photography! If you need a headshot or photoshoot in Philadelphia, let me know! 

Headshot photographer in Philadelphia

So after failing as a freelancer and struggling to figure things out, why am I still a freelancer?

Honestly, I thought about going back to an office job full time. I even applied to some office jobs. But I never heard back from the ones I applied for, even if I was absolutely perfect for the job (seriously, most of the time it’s who you know, not what you know).

I also love the flexibility of being a freelancer. Sure, I have to catch up on work in the evenings or on weekends sometimes, but I still prefer that over having a strict 9-5 office job. I have more freedom to travel, and with my family so spread out, I don’t have to stress out about not having enough vacation days to visit them for a week at Christmas and I don’t have to miss graduations and other celebrations. I also get to do fun things during the work day, like volunteer at the American Swedish Historical Museum

I’m also going to graduate school full time in the fall (going to Villanova!), and I wanted to have my flexible freelance schedule to better balance work and school. And since I can work anywhere in the world, I’m going back to Denmark for a month this summer to take a class! (And classes in Denmark are cheaper than the U.S., even with flights and housing!) So even if I’m currently making less money as a freelancer than I would in an office job, having a flexible schedule for school and travel and even hanging out with my pup are worth more to me.

Siberian Husky in Long Eddy, NY

Here are some lessons I’ve learned my first year as a freelancer that put things in a new perspective or helped my grow my business

-Clients “ghosting” is a real thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a call or in person meeting with someone, thought it went amazing, and then I never heard from them again! This was a hard lesson for me because I would get really excited to work with someone and already start strategizing for them, and then they would fall off the face of the earth with no warning. It’s even more awkward when someone ghosts you and then you run into them at networking events. It’s fine if someone decides they don’t want to work with me or they realize they don’t have the budget, but it’s really frustrating when they completely ignore me!

-It really is who you know, not what you know. This has been the most frustrating lesson of my career. I applied for over 200 jobs that I was more than qualified for right out of college, and I finally got… an internship (and I’m not trying to brag; objectively speaking, I was well suited for those jobs with my qualifications and experience). And I’m not the only person who’s learned this lesson- I keep hearing stories from friends and acquaintances about their struggles to get work and how they see people hired for jobs they’re not qualified for just because that person has a connection in the company.

I moved to Philadelphia where the only person I knew was my boyfriend (and he doesn’t really have any businessy connections because he’s in the medical field), so I’ve been trying my best to connect with people at networking events but it’s really hard. And growing my business isn’t the only reason I network; I also want to make friends because I work by myself, and it would be nice to hang out with people in similar fields who also have weird working hours. So if you’re struggling to find a job or new clients, try to see if you can find connections rather than just apply for jobs. And if you’re in Philly and want a new friend or business bud, let me know!

-Get inspired. I’m not really one to do journaling or anything feelings related (super left brained here), which is what I see a lot of in Facebook groups or webinars, and it wasn’t doing anything for me. If it helps you, that’s great! It just isn’t for me. I’m more interested in strategy and getting into the nitty-gritty of business, so I started listening to more business podcasts that inspired me and gave me new ideas for my business.

Website consultant in Philadelphia

So far, my favorites are The Kate Show (she focuses on marketing for interior designers, but most of her episodes can apply to any business), Creative Empire Podcast (interview style and great for any creative business), Simple Pin Podcast (she has so many helpful tips for Pinterest that any business or blogger can use), and Theory of Content (again, just great ideas for any business). Not only did these podcasts give me ideas for myself, they’ve also helped me come up with new ideas for my clients to help their businesses grow. So it’s a win-win! My blogger friend Cassandra also started a Facebook group called Your Soulful Branding, which has been great for bouncing ideas off people and watching their webinars.

-Put yourself out there. This is probably the scariest lesson, but also the most rewarding. I’m very active in three networking/community groups in Philadelphia- PHLbloggersRising Tide Society, and the Soloist Collective (the Rising Tide Society is national with groups all over the country, and the Soloist Collective is in NYC and Philly and they’re expanding if you’re interested in joining either). I knew no one in the Soloist Collective before joining a few months ago, and it’s been such a helpful group to be in! I told you I’ve already gotten some business from it, and it’s great for meeting up with other soloists in my area (all the chapters are location specific, so you never have to go far for a meeting and everyone lives close by). If you’re an introvert or just hate networking, I’m right there with you. I get super nervous, and at my first ever networking event, I was so bad at it that a nun had to rescue me, no joke. So if I can do it, you can, too.

I’ve been in my local Rising Tide Society group for a little over a year so I’m more comfortable now that I know some of the people, but recently I tackled something even more nerve wracking- public speaking. I was asked to do a presentation for the group about SEO best practices, so I wrote up a guide for everyone and talked for almost 2 hours. My stomach was in knots and I was too nervous to eat dinner before, but it actually went really well! AND I got a two new clients from it! Even though it was terrifying talking in front of people (and it was only like 15 people), I really enjoyed being able to help people with their business and answer all their questions. And it validated to me that I am an expert in my field and can help small businesses grow (because impostor syndrome can really get you down sometimes).

So am I in a good place now?

Faroe Islands

Not yet! I’m still not making nearly as much money as I was at this point last year, so I still have a ways to go to really be financially stable again. I spent a lot of time building my new website, so now that it’s done, I can focus on taking on more clients and growing my business. But at least right now I’m working with clients that I love and doing work that I love, so that counts for something.

Save to Pinterest!

Julia

24 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jennifer

    July 16, 2018

    Glad to hear things are looking up for you. I think you should also check out your local BNI group. It’s an international networking group that makes referral to each other as a way to help their businesses grow. Each group only has one of each type of occupation but it’s definitely worth looking into.

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 16, 2018

      Thank you, I’ll check it out! 🙂

  2. Reply

    Tonya Moken

    July 16, 2018

    What a great story! I will have to talk to you about helping me with my website, once I create a better budget.

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 16, 2018

      Thank you! I would be happy to help! 🙂

  3. Reply

    Stephanie of In Her Lens

    July 16, 2018

    I am so happy to hear that you stuck with it and things turned around for you. Hard work definitely pays off!!

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 16, 2018

      Thank you!! 🙂

  4. Reply

    Amber

    July 17, 2018

    Thanks for being so open and honest about your journey! Freelancing full time is no joke. Doing it on the side, at times, is honestly too much for me at times. Especially when things in my personal life get hectic and balancing becomes difficult. I’m glad things are on the up with you now and I hope it only gets better!

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 18, 2018

      Thanks for the support! 🙂 Let me know if you have any freelancing questions!

  5. Reply

    Heidi Roland

    July 18, 2018

    Thank you for sharing your journey! So excited to follow along on your next adventures!

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 18, 2018

      Thank you! 🙂

  6. Reply

    Theresa Bailey

    July 19, 2018

    I found your blog through RTS and liked it because my family is from Philly. (I grew up “right over the bridge” in NJ) It’s been interesting watching the transition over the last year but I’ve enjoyed your honesty. As a small business owner (event planner and wedding blogger) I know the struggles you are going through! I live in WV now and I just wish I was still in Philly so we could connect. I guess I’ll let you know if I’m ever out that way and have some time to meet 🙂

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 19, 2018

      Thank you! 🙂 I would love to connect if you ever come up to Philly! It’s so helpful knowing that I’m not the only one struggling!

  7. Reply

    hannah

    July 20, 2018

    Really enjoyed this post and I admire your honesty. I found it really helpful and eye opening as going freelance with my work is something I am currently working towards, so it was helpful to read the highs and lows of your journey!

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 20, 2018

      Thank you! 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions about becoming a freelancer!

  8. Reply

    Sara

    July 20, 2018

    Thanks so much for your honesty. One of the most difficult things when I was freelancing was feeling like I was only hearing about other freelancers who were super successful, which definitely made me feel like a failure. Freelancing is really hard, so glad you have recently found projects that are clicking with you.

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 20, 2018

      Thanks! I totally agree, it can be really discouraging when all you see are freelancers making millions of dollars!

  9. Reply

    Chrissy

    July 24, 2018

    First, I appreciate your candid post. I love that you both shared your struggle and your triumph. I would like to encourage you to keep testing your limits. Teaching will help you greatly, networking will help you greatly. I find telling myself I must hand out 50 business cards and then the next time 80 etc, is a nice way to get to know people and see who you connect with. You build your confidence up as well. You are correct, it really is who you know.

    Also I have never really watched podcasts but thank you for the recommendations perhaps this will be my start. 🙂

    “It shouldn’t be easy to be amazing. Then everything would be. It’s the things you fight for and struggle with before earning that have the greatest worth. When something’s difficult to come by, you’ll do that much more to make sure it’s even harder – or impossible – to lose.” ―Sarah Dessen

    • Reply

      Julia

      July 24, 2018

      Thank you so much! 🙂 I do need to get better at handing out business cards and going to more networking events. I hope you enjoy the podcasts!

  10. Reply

    Mike Mavilia

    August 3, 2018

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Julia. I had no idea all this was going on, as you churn out content on this site so frequently and it’s such great quality, I just assumed your freelance career took off. I can relate to your struggles as a freelancer myself, as I struggled the first 2 years of freelancing.

    You hit the nail on the head with the “who you know” aspect. One of the keys I’ve found is to aim big. befriend the President of the organization, the organizer of the conference or the owner of the business. It’s great to connect with people who do what we do and landing a freelance gig is an accomplishment in itself, but they are one-offs usually. Same goes for handing out business cards. If you can target the right people, the connections older, established people in the business have can really pay off.

    I got connected with a small publishing company via my volunteer work on a literary magazine and landed a steady 2 year gig ghostwriting a book, which lead to me building the author a website and then blogging for him to keep the income flowing. The publishing company has offered me several other gigs. I even made a special trip out to see them across the country, brought a few gifts and talked with the marketing person, the president and V.P. Building relationships is key. Sometimes all it takes is meeting one well-connected person who wants to help an up-and-coming person and the high end connections snowball because they know a lot of people at their level they can introduce you to.

    Thanks again for the candid and informative post. I made some notes myself. I’m glad that you had your “aha” moment too. Congrats on your new website/job title!

    • Reply

      Julia

      August 3, 2018

      Thank you! Relationships are definitely key to getting gigs. I haven’t really met many people at the head of companies, but that’s something I should try next, thanks!

  11. Reply

    Chrissie Gerber

    August 6, 2018

    This was so impressive to read. Most people only seem to talk about their successes with freelancing, so getting to read about a more realistic person’s view is incredible. Thank you for sharing this. I hope to start an editing freelancing business before the year ends and right now I’m finishing up an English teaching course. I wish I had a soundboard of people who do this, to talk to, but people are more tight-lipped about the realities than I’d hoped. I’m following you now, I like your fresh take on freelancing and want to read more…

    • Reply

      Julia

      August 6, 2018

      I’m glad it resonated with you! I also only see articles about successful freelancers, so I wanted to share my story to help people in situations similar to mine. Good luck with your editing freelance business! 🙂

  12. Reply

    Rhena Clark

    September 23, 2018

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s everything I’m going through right now. Blogging and freelancing is really tough going. Your post gave me some needed motivation.

    • Reply

      Julia

      September 23, 2018

      Thank you, I hope my story helps!!

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